Speedy traffic tickets urged


Computerized system would help drivers, police, officials say

General Assembly

January 12, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN REPORTER

Marylanders pulled over by police for traffic violations could be back on their way more quickly under a proposal to computerize the state's ticketing system.

Judicial and law enforcement officials are pushing a program that would allow state troopers and other officers to swipe a driver's license and registration, generating a ticket that would be transmitted electronically to the court system. Eventually, violators would have the option of paying tickets via the Internet.

E-citations, as they were called at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday, would help cut down on the 1.3 million paper tickets processed annually and help protect police, who can be hit by passing vehicles or assaulted by motorists during traffic stops.

Twenty-five states including California, Florida and New York have electronic citation systems or are implementing pilot programs, Chief District Court Judge Ben C. Clyburn told state senators. In those states, the number of traffic tickets overturned because of human error, such as violations checked incorrectly or writing that is illegible, has dropped.

A driver would still receive a paper copy of a ticket - a receipt of sorts - printed on a system installed in police cruisers.

"An officer will be able to create one citation, even if there are multiple charges, and be able to push a button to send it to a data warehouse," Clyburn said in an interview. He will talk to House members about the plan next week.

Under the proposed legislation, all of Maryland's police departments could switch to an electronic system. Maryland State Police - who issue one-third of the state's violations - say they are ready to start this year.

A sticking point could be the preference of the state police to eliminate signatures from the process. Drivers instead would be issued summonses. Bills have been drafted for either option.

The Berwyn Heights Police Department has been using computers to write traffic tickets since 2003, using software developed by Sgt. Richard Hartnett. The program generates tickets on a computer but does not transmit them electronically, which the proposed law would allow.

Hartnett, who is establishing the program for the New Carrollton Police Department, said yesterday, "Anything that allows police officers to spend less time doing paperwork and more time patrolling the streets, that's a good thing."

The state police software was also created in-house, saving the agency as much as $1.2 million.

"Because we designed it, we are able to modify it. ... For all intents and purposes, this was designed for free," state police Superintendent Col. Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins told senators.

Some senators expressed concern that the software would allow officers to see instantly whether a motorist had previous driving warnings and citations, saying police could be more likely to issue tickets to people with bad driving records.

Hutchins said that information is already available. "It's efficient, and the bottom line is, I cannot imagine drivers opposing a much neater, cleaner and concise way of getting a ticket," said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Democrat from Baltimore who is vice chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee.

Increased efficiency could have drawbacks for drivers hoping to get out of a traffic ticket by exploiting mistakes. A 2003 report issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation and two other federal agencies found that an estimated 10 percent of citations contain errors including misspellings, poor handwriting and inconsistencies between violation codes and descriptions.

The report concluded that electronic citation technology can eliminate "most, if not all" such errors.

Among the supporters of the initiative is the Office of the Public Defender. Lori Albin, the office's director of legislative affairs, said yesterday that the new system could cut down on the number of cases involving clients who refuse to sign tickets and get into altercations with officers.

In Ohio, the state Supreme Court stepped in after a pilot program caused problems when municipal judges refused to honor electronic tickets because they did not comply with the state's traffic-ticket laws.

Clyburn said Maryland courts need legislative approval to allow tickets to be filed electronically, which Berwyn Heights does not do. Eliminating signatures would also require a change, he said.

The most important feature of the proposal, Clyburn said, is officer safety. Sixty-five troopers were injured on roadsides last year.

"By doing this, we think we can cut by 80 percent the amount of time it will take an officer to issue that citation, which means they'll not be out in traffic," Clyburn said.

Faster ticketing means getting back on the road faster, Hartnett said.

"People who are speeding are late for something anyway," he said.


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